The term environmental refugee has taken on new meaning in China as wealthy residents of heavily polluted urban centers look to remote locales for respite from debilitating air pollution engulfing the region. As rural migrants continue to flock to cities in search of work, those who have made their fortune are looking elsewhere for clean food, water and air.
“China’s environmental refugees are two-pronged,” reported New Tang Dynasty, a news service based in New York City and founded by Chinese Americans. “One being those moving overseas to find clean air, and the other is those remaining in China, who flee pollution. The wealthy class choose America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or small European countries as destinations. Those remaining in China move to less populated, small and medium sized cities. This includes Dali in Yunnan, Sanya in Hainan, Weihai in Shandong, and Zhuhai in Guangdong.”
Zoe Zhang, a Shanghai housewife, one example of this trend, is looking for a home on Sanya in Hainan, a tropical island in the South China Sea that reported just one “slightly polluted” day last year compared to 189 days of polluted or heavily polluted air last year in Beijing.
“Air quality has never been so bad in Shanghai,” Zhang told Bloomberg News. “I simply want to have a place in Sanya for my baby and parents to fly down and stay during those heavily polluted days.”
With Beijing mired of late in a dense smog that kept people indoors, closed roads and grounded flights, Chinese scientists recently compared the country’s air pollution epidemic to a nuclear winter — potentially slowing plant photosynthesis and impacting food production.
In industrial areas like those that surround Beijing, more than half of the most dangerous pollution particles, PM2.5, come from coal combustion in power, steel, cement and brick industries, according to a Greenpeace study. China produces nearly half of global steel supply and more than half of the world’s cement.
Like China’s wealthy residents, China’s air pollution is moving beyond the mainland’s borders — and has recently migrated across the Sea of Japan, impacting Japanese residents. Last week Tokyo’s air pollution neared alert levels as pollution from China made its way west.
“The air from the continent arrives directly to Japan more often in the start of spring,” Kansuke Sasaki, an air pollution analyst at the Japan Weather Association told Bloomberg News. “The pollution arriving to Japan from overseas is reaching to levels that can’t be ignored.”
Pollution from China is reaching as far as the U.S. West Coast, according to a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study found that China can account for 12 to 24 percent of sulfate concentrations on any given day along the West Coast — a large part of which comes from the manufacturing of products themselves shipped to the U.S.
In May, ministers from China, Japan and South Korea will meet to discuss measures to mitigate the rising levels of pollution blanketing the region.